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Insufficient statistics hamper anti-drug efforts in Charles Mix County

Alicia Sanchez, program director for Canku Teca, a tribal addiction treatment center in Lake Andes, says there has been a "huge" increase in meth use in recent years. (Ross Dolan/The Daily Republic)1 / 3
Charles Mix County Sheriff Randy Thaler talks with a reporter at his office in Lake Andes. Thaler said meth "doesn't know any boundaries and it affects all races." (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)2 / 3
Robert Flying Hawk, chairman of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, poses for a picture at the tribal headquarters in Wagner. The area's meth problem touched him when his nephew struggled with the drug. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)3 / 3

WAGNER — If a wake-up call was needed to alert a city to a growing methamphetamine problem, it came for Wagner with the July 2012 death of Rielee Lovell.

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The lifeless body of the 2-year-old girl was found in the closet of Taylor and Laurie Cournoyer’s tribal housing project home near Wagner, where the child had lain for nearly two days after a fatal incident with an 11-year-old who was among six children under the couple’s supposed supervision.

The Cournoyers’ excuse was that they were high on meth — an addictive stimulant — and other drugs at the time, and lost track of the children. Both are now serving prison terms.

At her sentencing, Laurie Cournoyer, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, said her experience should raise awareness of the Wagner area’s problem of drug-use, specifically meth, and drug-related crime.

“Meth is hurting our people,” Cournoyer said. “Our families. Our community. But most importantly, our children.”

Brian Slaba, CEO and administrator for Wagner Community Memorial Hospital-Avera, said the Lovell death was devastating for the community.

“The loss of that 2-year-old child highlighted a direct link between drugs and other problems,” he said. “When meth started to impact children, that’s when the community became alarmed. It elevated awareness of how bad the problem was getting out there.”

Slaba said the event was a catalyzing force for the formation of the Southern Charles Mix County Healthcare Collaborative, a coalition of local and tribal organizations designed to address drug and alcohol abuse.

Unfortunately, the collaborative last met about six months ago and has been languishing, Slaba said, because it lacks dependable data it can use to quantify the local area’s meth problem. That makes it difficult to show evidence needed in applications for grants and other assistance that could help with meth prevention, enforcement and treatment.

Statewide numbers up

Meanwhile, statewide data show a rise in meth activity. After statewide meth-related arrests dropped from 700 in 2004 to 162 in 2008, a resurgence pushed arrests to 669 in 2012.

Each of those years has already been surpassed so far this year with 837 meth-related arrests through August.

Yet while state and some county numbers exist, city-level data is hard to come by. The state’s annual Crime in South Dakota reports, for example, lump meth in with other controlled substances rather than break out meth as its own statistic. And in Wagner, where there is tribal land, federal and state officials have their own separate sets of statistics.

Attorney General Marty Jackley acknowledged the problem.

“I can give you the state numbers, which are the numbers I openly pass out,” Jackley said, “but that doesn’t give you what the federal and tribal folks are up to.”

Slaba said the Wagner community is wondering where to go next.

“We’re doing what we can, but we’re running into dead ends,” he said. “My sense of the situation is that meth is an extremely aggressive problem, but the statistics we need to quantify the problem are not there.”

Tim Simonsen, who has been Wagner chief of police for about a year, said his office reports regularly on drug arrests to the Wagner City Council but does not separate meth from other drug violations in its reporting, except for marijuana. Anecdotally, he said a large percentage of the traffic stops made by the department uncover meth use.

From July 2012 to September 2013, the department posted 63 arrests for possession of a controlled substance, 48 arrests for possession of drug paraphernalia, 76 arrests for ingesting a substance other than alcohol and 67 arrests for possession of marijuana.

When questioned by The Daily Republic, Simonsen said he plans to discuss tracking meth as a separate statistic with his officers and city council members in the near future.

Reporting system proposed

Despite the confusing web of numbers, Jackley believes the increase in meth use is “substantial.” One reason for the increase, he said, has been the in-home production of meth using the do-it-yourself “one-pot method” method of meth production.

Commonly known as “shake and bake,” the method mixes common and frequently toxic household chemicals and over-the-counter cold tablets containing pseudoephedrine in 1-liter plastic soda bottles to create meth for personal use.

In 2005-2006, state lawmakers acted to stem easy access to pseudoephedrine, which is in many cold medicines and is also used to make meth, by moving it from shelves to the control of pharmacists and by limiting sales.

The move slowed meth production for a time, Jackley said, but meth producers have adapted, making multiple stops to get the drugs they need.

Given available technology, the state may need to take another look at pseudoephedrine reporting, he believes.

“I’ve been openly opposed to making pseudoephedrine — a key meth ingredient — a prescription drug,” Jackley said. “I think we can take less intrusive steps.”

Jackley wants to work with retailers and pharmacists to address reporting requirements. He believes reporting can be sped up — moving away from archaic hand-written recordkeeping, to using scanning and bar code technology that can do a better job of reporting pseudoephedrine purchases in real-time. That, he explained, would help prevent abusers from traveling to multiple stores to collect the pseudoephedrine they need.

“I’ve talked to the South Dakota Retailers Association about this concern, because they’re part of the solution,” he said, “as well as to key legislators on the Judiciary Committee about what can be done to address this ongoing concern.”

The key, Jackley said, is to develop a system that will respect individual privacy but will also be a useful and practical tool for law enforcement agencies.

“We need to be able to respect the privacy of the individual who wants to go in and get a cold medicine, and we don’t want to make it so difficult, under the prescription process, for someone who needs one to get a basic cold medication,” he said. “We can address this problem without having to go to more drastic measures by instituting a responsible and efficient reporting process.”

Jackley said his office is in talks with business owners and lawmakers to address the new pseudoephedrine initiative.

“We’re trying to involve everyone in the discussions and we hope to have legislation come out of it in the next few weeks,” Jackley said.

Not all meth is home-cooked. A Bureau of Indian Affairs special supervisory agent who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons said the Charles Mix County area is at the end of a meth pipeline that stretches from Mexico throughout the Midwest. It is a market that’s more for users than producers of meth, he said. Some of the meth that comes into the area is brought by users who travel to bigger cities for supplies to share with friends, he said, also noting that many meth addicts are making the jump to prescription meds.

“Where you find meth you’ll also find pills,” he said.

Broad, diverse area adds challenges

Charles Mix County Sheriff Randy Thaler said meth use is not going away anytime soon.

“It’s cheap and available across the United States, especially in poverty-stricken areas,” Thaler said. “It’s a drug that doesn’t know any boundaries and it affects all races.”

Charles Mix County’s median household income of $36,757 is below the state median household income of $48,010. Some communities within the county have even lower median incomes: $29,554 in Wagner, $26,136 in Lake Andes and $19,844 in Marty.

Meth users typically begin with marijuana and “educate themselves up,” Thaler said. Long touted as the poor man’s cocaine, methamphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant drug, sometimes referred to as crank, crystal or speed, that is typically smoked or injected. It has a high potential for abuse, which can lead to severe psychological and physical dependence.

Thaler said the meth problem began prior to his tenure and has been continually building for the past 15 years.

“It’s embedded and it’s here to stay,” he said. “I’d like to see it eliminated, but that’s not a foreseeable option.”

Meth is a tough habit to kick, he said, noting meth users regularly fail court-ordered urinalysis tests that are administered at the jail.

The wall behind Thaler’s desk is dominated by a painted mural of the departmental logo, which features an outline of Charles Mix County. It highlights the task facing Thaler and his department.

Charles Mix County, which has a shape resembling California in a northwest-to-southeasterly direction, is bordered on the west by the Missouri River, the north by Brule County, the south by Nebraska, and the east by Douglas, Bon Homme and Hutchinson counties. At about 1,100 square miles, it covers a geographic area nearly 2.5 times larger than several neighboring counties — a territory Thaler must cover with the aid of five deputies and the help of local police, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal police operating within their respective jurisdictions.

Jurisdictional issues can often crop up when incidents occur on Indian trust land in the county, Thaler said.

“Things happen and when they do all we can do is relay information to the proper tribal authorities,” he said. “It’s frustrating, but you have to operate within the limits of your jurisdiction.”

Deputy Neal Moad, the county’s drug investigator, scored a major meth arrest in April when, acting on community tips, he and other deputies staked out and busted a meth lab working out of a Lake Andes home. Moad used meth lab debris collected from trash as the basis for a search warrant that exposed the operation.

Thaler and other law officials say the number of major labs that cook meth is generally on the wane as meth comes into Charles Mix and other South Dakota counties from outside sources, or is produced on the cheap, using do-it-yourself methods of meth production.

Simonsen said Rielee Lovell’s death caused his Wagner Police Department to have a greater focus on meth, and officers have received better training on how to recognize the symptoms of its use.

Most of the arrests for meth have been incidental to other police work. A late September arrest, for example, was the result of a child welfare check.

“Our officer knocked on the door and she could see certain items in plain view,” Simonsen said. “We went back and got a search warrant and found some items.”

The state Department of Social Services takes custody of children in such cases, he explained.

Meth and drugs are affecting families at all levels, Simonsen said, noting it’s getting more difficult to find foster placements for kids.

“It’s a snowball effect and it seems ages we’re starting to deal with for drug use are getting younger and younger,” he said. “Kids tell me it’s easier to get somebody to buy them marijuana than it is to have somebody buy alcohol, and we have a lot of kids we catch for marijuana use.”

Tribal issues

Meth is a major problem in Charles Mix County’s American Indian community, said Tribal Chairman Robert Flying Hawk, who took office Oct. 1 and represents about 3,500 members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe who live in the immediate area. Charles Mix County’s overall population is about one-third Indian.

“It’s a concern for us and for me personally,” Flying Hawk said. “It affects our health and our way of life. It’s detrimental; it’s harmful and we need to do something to get it out of our system. It is not good and it is very harmful to us.”

Flying Hawk said the meth problem has affected his family. He said his nephew struggled with a meth addiction until receiving help.

Help for Indians with addictions is available locally at Canku Teca, a Lake Andes-based drug and alcohol residential treatment center financed by the tribe.

Canku Teca uses Indian teachings in combination with modern counseling methods to help those addicted to alcohol and drugs. It is part of the Southern Charles Mix County Healthcare Collaborative.

Program Director Alicia Sanchez, a graduate of Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, said she knows the meth problem is bad, but like Avera’s Brian Slaba, she would like to see statistics that give a better indicator of the problem.

Meth is a tough habit to kick, she said.  

“Addicts say it gives them an immediate high and makes them feel elated,” she said.

The high lasts longer than cocaine, making it a preferred and cheaper drug.

“The scary thing is there’s a lot of it out there,” she said. “Smoking is the preferred method, but there’s increased IV use not only on our reservation, but in other areas.”

Diabetes is a common problem among Indians, she said, which gives addicts easy access to hypodermic syringes.

“There’s been a huge increase in meth use,” she thinks, and an uptick in the number of referrals for treatment. Referrals for alcohol abuse often uncover an additional meth addiction.

Treatment is harder and longer for meth and longer aftercare is often required. Without the latter, relapse is common.  

“There’s concern and a lot of anger in the community,” she said.

‘We’re not going to give up’

People are also scared, too. A few summers ago, Sanchez said, there were about 20 break-ins in Lake Andes homes as perpetrators sought money or merchandise that could be sold to support their drug habits. People responded by purchasing security systems and starting neighborhood watch programs. The sheriff’s office gave classes to educate people on what they can do to recognize the signs of drug use in the community.

A September Bike for Meth Awareness program at Canku Teca drew more than 100 people, said Sanchez, who saw the high participation as an indicator of community concern. The event went on for hours.

“It wasn’t scheduled to go that long, but there were so many questions, the main one being ‘What can we do?’ ” she said.

Residents want users arrested; they want to be rid of meth, she added.

“People see it out there and they know who the users are,” Sanchez said, “but we live in a small community and people are scared to put themselves out there. Racial tensions make it even more difficult to get people to work together.”

Wagner Police Chief Simonsen said he’s seen a change in community attitudes since Rielee Lovell’s death. Tribal enforcement has become tougher on meth possession and the public is beginning to see police less as harassers and more as protectors.

“We don’t get bad-mouthed for making an arrest,” he said.

Slaba, the hospital executive, thinks Charles Mix County could be a pioneer in developing a comprehensive plan to attack drug abuse that addresses law enforcement, cultural differences, education and treatment. Such a plan, Slaba believes, is crucial for the future of the area and its youth.

“It’s just a matter of getting out there and applying for the grant with the often sketchy numbers we do have,” he said.

“This is going to be an ongoing battle that will go on for years. We’re not going to give up on it, because we’re not going to give up on our youth.”